How to Turn an Awful Sentence Into a Crystal-Clear One

In the 1970s, a frustrated reader handed Roy Peter Clark an editorial that contained this daunting sentence:

“To avert the all too common enactment of requirements without regard for their local cost and tax impact, however, the commission recommends that statewide interest should be clearly identified on any proposed mandates, and that the state should partially reimburse local government for some state imposed mandates and fully for those involving employee compensations, working conditions and pensions.”

Clark translates this as follows:

“The state of New York often passes laws telling local government what to do. These laws have a name. They are called ‘state mandates.’ On many occasions, these laws improve life for everyone in the state. But they come with a cost. Too often, the state doesn’t consider the cost to local government, or how much money taxpayers will have to shell out. So we have an idea. The state should pay back local government for some of these so-called mandates.”


1. The reader benefits from shorter words and phrases.

2. The reader benefits from simple sentences.

Somewhere, George Orwell is smiling.

YouTube. Youtube. BuzzFeed. Buzzfeed

blog. blog post.

Last year, Forrest Wickman articulated one of my longstanding pet peeves: the conflation of “blog”and “blog post.”

No matter what dictionary you check—online, Urban, or otherwise—you will find no definition of blog that means blog post. Saying one to mean the other is like saying magazine when you mean article. The listener or reader may get your drift eventually, but only after they’ve been thrown for a loop.

He followed-up last week with a taunt to Gawker's Tom Scocca:

Go ahead and call a blog post a blog. You’ll only sound like the most clueless person on the Internets.

social media. digital media

“Social media” pertains to social networks like Facebook.

“Digital media” pertains to advertising on those networks.

The ROI of Copyediting

Not much, says former ReadWrite editor, Abraham Hyatt:

It would be groundbreaking, I thought, to bring that kind of quality to tech blogging. And a few years later, I had the chance to do it. I found two very talented editors who worked from morning Eastern time to late afternoon Pacific time. Every story went through them before being published. They were fantastic.

They also slowed the publishing process to a screeching near-halt. And, even more importantly: No. One. Cared.

Hiring them was part of a larger, and ultimately failed, experiment to bring magazine-style editing and quality control to tech blogging. We would write fewer, better stories. Our copy would gleam. Readers would swoon.

It was a train wreck. Traffic plummeted. By half. Literally, month-to-month traffic cut in half. As we tried to right the sinking ship the first thing I did was fire the copyeditors. During the eight-or-so months they worked for us no one had ever commented on our clean copy. No one told us they came to our site because we had fewer typos than TechCruch. I saw the difference. It’s not that readers didn’t, they just didn’t care.

Counterargument, by former copy editor Fred Vultee, here.

Why I Use the Serial Comma

Eric Wemple sets the context (link added):

It’s a law of human reading nature that our eyes skip ahead on the page, looking for signposts. When lists surface on the page, the reader wants to know right away how exhaustive it is. Serial comma to the rescue.

Mignon Fogarty renders the argument:

Although the serial comma isn’t always necessary, I favor it because often it does add clarity, and I believe in having a simple, consistent style, instead of trying to decide whether you need something on a case-by-case basis. I also think using the serial comma makes even simple lists easier to read.

curation. aggregation

curation: stories collected by a person (e.g., Best of the Web Today, the Slatest)

aggregation: stories collected by a robot (e.g., InstaRank, Google News)

Has "Curate" Replaced "Aggregate" As the Default Term for Summarizing Other People’s News? [Poynter]

Here’s Hoping David Pogue’s Allergy to Jargon Is Contagious

“You’ll never catch me using terms like price point when I mean price, or form factor when I mean size. I’ll never say content when I mean video, solution when I mean product, DRM when I mean copy protection, or functionality when I mean feature.”


How You Say It Is As Important As What You Say

Nancy Gibbs on Pope Francis:

He has done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music. Tone and temperament matter in a church built on the substance of symbols—bread and wine, body and blood—so it is a mistake to dismiss any Pope’s symbolic choices­ as gestures empty of the force of law.

Howard Chua-Eoan and Elizabeth Dias:

Francis signals great change while giving the same answers to the uncomfortable questions.


verb (v):  to describe an action taken in social media as a concise verb

Google says nothing about the search engine’s purpose, but it’s easy and fun to say, and eminently verbable.”

Instagram’s New Private-Messaging Feature Is Tragically Unverbable [Slate]

How Facebook Uses Semantics

The Atlantic:

They even take care not to create any emotional friction as you enter your life details into Facebook. One fantastic example that Dougherty-Wold gave me was adding a “life event” on Timeline. “There’s a menu of those events and a typical menu would list the options alphabetically,” she said, “but if we did, you’d have divorce sitting on top of engagement. The content strategist who worked on that menu had a tremendous amount of empathy.” The list was reordered to follow the arc of a relationship. “Just by not making you think about divorce at the same time that you’re thinking about engagement,” she concluded, “we’re getting out of your way.”

many. much

What’s wrong with this sentence?

Mr. DiPascali faces as many as 125 years in prison.

No he doesn’t. He faces as much or as long as 125 years. The use of many implies an integer metric and prison sentences are most definitely not limited to an integer number of years.

Style and Substance [WSJ]

Wal-Mart or Walmart?

“We use Wal-Mart Stores (that company’s legal and stock name) even after it starting putting a Walmart logo on the storefronts.”

Style and Substance [WSJ]

The Top 10 Most Overused Buzzwords on LinkedIn in 2013

Let the year-end listicles commence!

Do You Really Write Need to Write 25 Headlines for Each Article?

Yes, sir, says Upworthy’s top curator.

The key is not to make every sentence perfect—20 of the 25 headlines will be junk—but to force you out of the box.

15 Secrets to Make Your Headline Go Viral

From Upworthy’s top curator:

  1. Tell a story in your headline, but don’t give it all away. (This is what makes us so successful, though some people really hate it.)
  2. If you’ve got some heroes and villains, play them off each other.
  3. To optimize shareability you want to make sure everyone can feel comfortable sharing it. Think to yourself, “Would my mom share this headline?” If not, do something different. Unless you are only targeting a subgroup and don’t care about shareability.
  4. Don’t depress people so much that they want to give up on humanity. Negative headlines breeds negative shares.
  5. Don’t curse in your headlines. Moms hate it—and moms are the biggest sharers on the Internet by a significant margin.
  6. Don’t make people take positions they might be uncomfortable with. For example, “I Really Hate All White People” is going to not get shared, whereas “An Open Letter to Pasty People” is far less hostile and more likely to get shared.
  7. Don’t use terms that overwhelm, polarize or bore people. I never use Social Security, the Environment, Immigration, Democrats, Republicans, Medicare, Racist, Bigot, etc... You can talk about issues without giving away what they are. Most people aren’t going to want to look at a Immigration video. Once they get to your site and hit play, they may reconsider. (Though immigration is particularly challenging.)
  8. Don’t be shrill and judgy; let the facts speak for themselves. Anytime I’ve made that mistake, the content dies a horrible death. An example: when Todd Akin came out with the cartoonishly awful idea that women’s bodies stop them from getting pregnant from rape, I started with the headline, “Meet Todd Akin. He’s a Horrible Human Being. Share This So Everyone Knows.” No one clicked or shared. When I changed it to “A Congressman on a Science Committee Doesn’t Understand How Science Works” it did waaaay better with people across the political spectrum. Because people didn’t have to be afraid of sounding partisan.
  9. Don’t oversell. We’ve worked hard to tone ourselves down, as occasionally our headlines would veer toward THE BIGGEST THING EVER, when it was actually THE PRETTY INTERESTING BUT NOT BIGGEST THING EVER. It’s not worth dragging people to your site if they feel ripped off after they get there.
  10. Don’t be afraid to talk like a human. People like human conversation.
  11. Don’t make obscure pop culture references. 90% of Americans has never seen half the shows you’re referencing. Instead of “Jennifer Lawrence Talks About What It’s Like to Be Judged,” try “That Lady From the Hunger Games.” Nobody knows who your favorite character is played by.
  12. Always test. No matter how clever you think your headline is.
  13. Speaking of which, don’t be too clever. People won’t get it and they won’t click and then you lose.
  14. Have fun. Dry headlines bore people.
  15. Always write 25 headlines. Or the terrorists will win.

Can You Guess Which Headline Will Do the Best?

  1. It’s Kind Of Awkward When The Commander Of A Starship Makes Me Cry, Yet Here We Are
  2. Patrick Stewart’s Passion And Care For His Fans Boils Over Into A Heart-Wrenching And Wonderful Answer
  3. A Fan Asked Patrick Stewart A Question He Doesn’t Always Get. His Answer Was One That I’ve Never Seen Anything Like Since.
  4. Some Actors Like Talking To Their Fans. Patrick Stewart, However, Goes The Extra Lightyear
  5. Patrick Stewart Isn’t Only A Starfleet Commander. He’s Also A Friggin Amazing Human Being.
  6. I’ve Never Cried Watching SciFi Actors Answering Fans Questions Before. CURSE YOU, PATRICK STEWART!
  7. Patrick Stewart Hears Some Pain In A Fan’s Voice And Takes His Compassion To Warp 10
  8. Patrick Stewart Is Space Captain Ever. Nay, The Best Human Being Ever.
  9. If You Don’t Like SciFi, This Will Make You Cry. Same If You Do Like SciFi.
  10. I Was Unaware Starfleet Captains Could Make Grown Men Openly Weep, Yet Here We Are
  11. This Man Commanded A Starship, Was A Member Of The Royal Shakespeare Company, And Just Made Me Cry At A Nerd Convention
  12. A Bunch Of SciFi Geeks Went To A Convention To Ask Their Heroes Questions. So Why Am I Crying About It?
  13. I’m Not Supposed To Cry Watching SciFi Geeks Ask Actors Questions, Yet Here We Are
  14. A Brave Fan Asks Patrick Stewart A Question He Doesn’t Usually Get And Is Given A Beautiful Answer
  15. The Time I Really Felt Like Giving Patrick Stewart A Giant Hug For Being A Wonderful Human Being
  16. I Don’t Know About You, But I DO NOT CRY Watching Star Trek. Yet Here We Are.
  17. I’m Not Crying. That’s Just Space Rain On My Face.
  18. That Time You Wished Patrick Stewart Was Your Dad
  19. MUST WATCH: Patrick Stewart Is An Incredible Human Being. Seriously.

Answer here.

Most People Are Tactical Editors. Here’s How to Be a Strategic Editor

Don’t just cut words; cut sentiments. Don’t just make your text shorter; make it more focused.

Here’s how the Post's Carlos Lozada frames the issue:

The writer in me desires what the editor in me cannot abide. I treasure every precious construction, every not-so-clever aside. (Like this one.) So the cuts I make to my own drafts are marginal. I compress rather than select; shake, never prune. Until another editor does it for me.

like farming

like farming (v): to engender an overly emotional response and thus induce lots of people to click on Facebook’s “like” button

For example:

  • Click “like” if you love Jesus.
  • Click “like” if you support the troops.
  • Click “like” if you think this tragically disfigured burn victim is still beautiful.
  • Click “like” if you have a heart, care even a little, love puppies, and aren’t a selfish evil jerk.

Merlin German was a U.S, soldier injured in a IED attack in Iraq. He died in 2008, but his photo has been used by many Facebook like-farming campaigns.

Click “Like” if You Love Puppies, Support the Troops, and Hate Your Facebook Friends [VentureBeat]

How Many of These Cliches Do You Use?

Carlos Lorzada:

  • Literally
  • Kingmaker
  • The [anything] community
  • Inside the Beltway
  • Demurred
  • It’s the [anything], stupid
  • Redux
  • That’s just [person’s name] being [person’s name]
  • It is what it is
  • Political theater
  • Part and parcel
  • Main Street vs. Wall Street
  • At first glance
  • As a society (or “as a nation”)
  • Observers
  • TK is not alone
  • Pundits say (or “critics say”)
  • The American people (unless in a quote)
  • The narrative (unless referring to a style of writing)
  • Probe (as substitute for “investigation”)
  • A rare window (unless we’re talking about a real window that is in fact rare)
  • Begs the question (unless used properly—and so rarely used properly that not worth it)
  • Be that as it may
  • It is important to note that
  • Needless to say
  • [Anything] 2.0 (or 3.0, or 4.0 . . .)
  • At a crossroads
  • TK is a favorite Washington parlor game
  • Yes, Virginia, there is a TK
  • Underscored
  • Midwife (as a verb that does not involve childbirth)
  • Call it TK
  • Pity the poor TK
  • Imagine (as the first word in your lede)
  • It’s the TK, stupid
  • Palpable sense of relief
  • Rorschach test (unless it is a real one)
  • The Other
  • Effort (as a verb)
  • Gestalt/Zeitgeist
  • Little-noticed (that just means the writer hadn’t noticed it)
  • he [anything] community
  • Hastily convened
  • Ignominious end
  • Tightly knit community
  • In the final analysis
  • At the end of the day
  • Literally (unless quoting Vice President Biden)
  • Ultimately (especially as first word of last graf)
  • Redux
  • Rise of the 24-hour news cycle (it rose a long time ago)
  • Remains to be seen
  • Feeding frenzy/feeding the frenzy
  • Double down
  • [Anything]-gate
  • Dons the mantle of
  • Political theater
  • Hot-button issue
  • Face-saving compromise
  • The argument goes (or its cousin, “the thinking goes”)
  • Shutter (as a verb)
  • Part and parcel
  • Demurred
  • It is what it is
  • The new normal
  • Paradigm shift (in journalism, all paradigms are shifting)
  • Unlikely revolutionary (in journalism, all revolutionaries are unlikely)
  • Unlikely reformer (in journalism, all reformers are unlikely)
  • Grizzled veteran (in journalism, all veterans are grizzled—unless they are “seasoned”)
  • Manicured lawns (in journalism, all nice lawns are manicured)
  • Rose from obscurity (in journalism, all rises are from obscurity)
  • Dizzying array (in journalism, all arrays make one dizzy)
  • Withering criticism (in journalism, all criticism is withering)
  • Predawn raid (in journalism, all raids are predawn)
  • Sparked debate (or “raised questions”)
  • Ironic Capitalizations Implying Unimportance of Things Others Consider Important
  • Provides fresh details
  • But reality/truth is more complicated (oversimplify, then criticize the oversimplification)
  • Scarred by war
  • Main Street vs. Wall Street
  • Shines a spotlight on (unless there is a real spotlight that really shines)
  • TK is no panacea (nothing is)
  • No silver bullet
  • Shifting dynamics
  • Situation is fluid (code for “I have no idea what is going on”)
  • Partisans on both sides
  • Charm offensive
  • Pushback
  • Going forward
  • Stinging rebuke
  • Mr. TK goes to Washington (unless a reference to the actual movie)
  • The proverbial TK (“proverbial” doesn’t excuse the cliche, just admits you used it knowingly)
  • Fevered speculation
  • Oft-cited
  • Iconic
  • Growing body of evidence (in journalism, no bodies of evidence ever shrink)
  • Increasingly (unless we prove in the story that something is in fact increasing)
  • Tapped (as substitute for “selected” or “appointed”)
  • Any “not un-” formulation (as in “not unsurprising”)
  • There, I said it (more self-important than “voicey”)
  • To be sure

You Can't Spell "Numbers" Without "Numb"

Mike Long is one of the best writers I have the pleasure of reading. His latest e-newsletter is worth reprinting in full.

Numbers don’t mean anything unless you put them in human terms.

The cold precision of numbers is, to most readers, just that: cold. The vast majority of people don’t like numbers, don’t understand numbers, aren’t good with numbers, and wear their number-phobia with pride.

But as writers, the number problem we need to deal with most often isn’t the reader’s inability to divide the check three ways at dinner. The real problem is not knowing what numbers amount to in real-world terms. The United States federal budget is about $4 trillion. That sounds like a big number, but how big? The average reader has literally no idea.

How many thousands of dollars are in a million? How many millions are in a billion? How many billions in a trillion? Everybody’s lost. When we write or say $4 trillion, it impresses only because of the intimidating feeling we associate with big numbers. A good writer knows this and addresses it.

What’s the fix? Put big numbers in human terms.

For instance, a little division produces this nugget: $4 trillion in spending amounts to spending about $11 billion a day, every day. That’s a little easier to imagine, but few people really know how much a billion is, either. Dig deeper.

$4 trillion a year is about $500 million an hour. That’s more familiar, but not much. Keep going.

It’s also $7.5 million a minute—closer, but eh. I don’t really know what $7.5 million is like, do you?

But if you do the division one more time, we strike gold: $4 trillion comes down to $127,000 in spending every second. That’s a number I “get.”

If I tell you the government spends $4 trillion a year, well, you’re impressed (or worried) in a vague sort of way. But if I tell you that the government spends $127,000 a second every hour… of every day… of every year—now I have your attention.

And the real-world comparisons start writing themselves:

In one second, the federal government spends what two typical American families earn in an entire year.

Every two seconds, the federal government spends enough money to buy the average house—that’s your 30-year mortgage paid off in less time than it takes to breathe in.

In the time it takes you to read this sentence out loud, the federal government spent enough money to buy about half the homes on your block.

Every six weeks, the federal government spends enough money to buy Apple, the most valuable public company in America.

Five more weeks of spending and it could also buy ExxonMobil.

Another five and they—rather, you—have paid for Google, too.

Get the idea?

Cranking down numbers into familiar comparisons elicits something far more valuable than the typical “gee whiz” you’ve been settling for.

(By the way, it’s not hard to do the math. Just type it into your calculator, or even into Google: 4 trillion divided by 365—that gives you dollars per day. Divide that by 24 to get dollars per hour. Divide that by 60 to get dollars per minute. See?)

Your writing has value only if you are providing something the reader does not know. So do some homework—put in effort that the reader has not or will not. Otherwise you’re just spouting uninformed opinion and if you wanted that, you could call the average “friend” on Facebook.

$127,000 a second—that’s one they’ll remember. Stop settling for vaguely scary numbers. Start comparing numbers to things everybody understands. There’s such a payoff.

Addendum (11/20/2013): As it happens, one month ago, the New York Times ombudsman picked up on this problem:

[David Leonhardt, the paper’s Washington bureau chief,] agrees that there is a problem, and told me that the Times is already working on a solution. A small group of editors is “thinking through a whole set of issues about how we present numbers,” he told me. The results, he said, will probably be determined within a couple of months. They might take the form of new entries to the stylebook, announcements within newsroom departments or emails laying out new guidelines to the whole news staff.

“The readers are right,” he told me. “We should do better.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that “the human mind isn’t equipped” to deal with very large numbers. When people see these numbers, he said, they read it as “a lot of money” or “a really big number.”

One answer, as many have suggested, is expressing individual budget figures–consistently–as a percentage of the whole. Another, he said, is in making comparisons. For example, he said, a $10 billion figure might be put in context by comparing it with other costs, like the annual defense and Social Security budgets.

Addendum (12/8/2013): Here's a good video from BuzzFeed that contextualizes 12 big numbers about Amazon:

76 Phrases You Should Avoid

From the Washington Post:

  1. At first glance
  2. As a society (or, “as a nation”)
  3. Observers
  4. TK is not alone
  5. Pundits say (or “Critics say”)
  6. The American people (unless in a quote)
  7. The narrative (unless referring to a style of writing)
  8. Probe (as substitute for “investigation”)
  9. A rare window (unless we’re talking about a real window that is in fact rare)
  10. Begs the question (unless used properly – and so rarely used properly that not worth it)
  11. Be that as it may
  12. It is important to note that
  13. Needless to say
  14. [Anything] 2.0 (or 3.0, or 4.0…)
  15. At a crossroads
  16. Outside the box/Out of the box
  17. TK is a favorite Washington parlor game
  18. Yes, Virginia, there is a TK
  19. Underscored
  20. Midwife (as a verb that does not involve childbirth)
  21. Call it TK
  22. Pity the poor TK
  23. Imagine (as the first word in your lede)
  24. Palpable sense of relief
  25. Rorschach test (unless it is a real one)
  26. The Other
  27. Effort (as a verb)
  28. Gestalt/Zeitgeist
  29. Little-noticed (that just means the writer hadn’t noticed it)
  30. Hastily-convened
  31. Ignominious end
  32. Tightly knit community
  33. Rise of the 24-hour news cycle (it rose a long time ago)
  34. Remains to be seen
  35. Feeding frenzy/feeding the frenzy
  36. Double down
  37. Dons the mantle of
  38. Hot-button issue
  39. Face-saving compromise
  40. The argument goes (or its cousin, “the thinking goes”)
  41. Shutter (as a verb)
  42. Paradigm shift (in journalism, all paradigms are shifting)
  43. Unlikely revolutionary (in journalism, all revolutionaries are unlikely)
  44. Unlikely reformer (in journalism, all reformers are unlikely)
  45. Grizzled veteran (in journalism, all veterans are grizzled – unless they are “seasoned”)
  46. Manicured lawns (in journalism, all nice lawns are manicured)
  47. Rose from obscurity (in journalism, all rises are from obscurity)
  48. Dizzying array (in journalism, all arrays make one dizzy)
  49. Withering criticism (in journalism, all criticism is withering)
  50. Predawn raid (in journalism, all raids are predawn)
  51. Sparked debate (or “Raised questions”)
  52. Ironic Capitalizations Implying Unimportance Of Things Others Consider Important
  53. Provides fresh details
  54. But reality/truth is more complicated (oversimplify, then criticize the oversimplification)
  55. Scarred by war
  56. Shines a spotlight on (unless there is a real spotlight that really shines)
  57. TK is no panacea (nothing is)
  58. No silver bullet
  59. Shifting dynamics
  60. Situation is fluid (code for “I have no idea what is going on”)
  61. Partisans on both sides
  62. Charm offensive
  63. Pushback
  64. Going forward
  65. Stinging rebuke
  66. Mr. TK goes to Washington (unless a reference to the actual movie)
  67. The proverbial TK (“proverbial” doesn’t excuse the cliché, just admits you used it knowingly)
  68. Fevered speculation
  69. Oft-cited
  70. Iconic
  71. Growing body of evidence
  72. Increasingly (unless we prove in the story that something is in fact increasing)
  73. Tapped (as substitute for “selected” or “appointed)
  74. Any “not-un” formulation (as in “not unsurprising”)
  75. There, I said it (more self-important than “voicey”)
  76. To be sure

Why You Should Use Subheads

In his must-read e-newsletter, Mike Long echoes a point I recently made about the importance of subheads:

You can rely on sheer force of will and copious consumption of Red Bull, or you can take on the job one little piece at a time, using subheads to organize the effort. For instance, whenever I write a memo, there are always a handful of things I know I have to cover: an opening description, a list of deliverables, timetables, pricing, and other things depending on the topic. I used to just dive in. It rarely went well.

But by using subheads, I make the material easier to write and to understand. Instead of writing one long memo, I treat it like a handful of mini-memos on several smaller topics, each of which is titled by a subhead. This approach (which I first learned writing feature stories) works for everything, from speeches to novels to book proposals.

There’s No Such Thing As Writer's Block

From Mike Long’s e-newsletter:

Just do it ... It’s easier to re-write than to write, even if that first draft seems like junk ...

We often find that as we begin to write, what comes out isn’t as good as we’d like. There’s a reason for that: first-round writing sounds better in your head than it looks on the page. That in turn is because it’s more about how you want the reader to feel than how you’re going to get there. On the page, you try to recreate feelings with mere words. No wonder what we write doesn’t live up to our expectations: it never could!

But what seems like bad news is really good news, and it’s in total violation of conventional wisdom: there is no such thing as writer’s block. Writer’s block is only the fear that what you put on the page won’t measure up to the pretty ideas in your head. And now that you know it can’t, at least not the first time it hits the page, you are free to begin. You’ll fix things later, because that’s how real writing gets done.

don’t. do not

David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better:

  • “don’t” is a warning
  • “do not” is a warning and a reprimand

Write to Be UBER


  • Understood
  • Believed
  • Enjoyed
  • Remembered

Why Is Academic Writing So Bad?

Stephen Walt:

Many academics (and especially younger ones) tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity. If they write long and ponderous sentences and throw in lots of jargon, they assume that readers will be dazzled by their erudition and more likely to accept whatever it is they are saying uncritically. Moreover, jargon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack, and younger scholars often fear that if they don't sound like a professional scholar, then readers won't believe what they are saying no matter how solid their arguments and evidence are.

1,000 Words on Writer’s Cramp

The below essay comes from my colleague, Paul Franklin Stregevsky, and is reprinted with his permission. Despite its impending Bar Mitzvah (it originally appeared in the Washington Post in 2000), it remains an instant classic.

“How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2000?”

So asks Question 1 of the U.S. Census 2000. That’s easy: five. But wait—there are two answer blocks. Should the 5 go in the left block, or the right? If the right, should I write a 0 in the left block? If I guess wrong, the computer may think I mean 50. Or zero.

Perhaps Question 2 will prove less tricky: House number. Easy: 13. But what’s this? There are 10 blocks. Will the computer look for my digits in the left blocks? Or the right? I know what I think they want. The question is: What do they think I think they want?

“If you need help completing this form,” promises the bold print, “call 1-800-471-9424.” I call. After dodging the automated responses, I explain my problem to Tracy. Sweet, unsuspecting Tracy. Nothing has prepared her for a dimwit like me. She starts to recite the “who to include” tips that appear on the form, directly below my two empty blocks.

“Tracy,” I interrupt, “have you been trained to give me any response other than the advice on the form?”

“No, Sir.”

I scour the census mailing for a web address. Bingo. I log on to, where a bold hyperlink promises that you can “find help with any problems you might have in responding to the census.” Any. I like any.

Two clicks later, I’m at “Questions for Person 1” (me). But wait: The list starts with Question 3! The Census Bureaucrats can’t imagine someone having angst over Q1 or Q2. They can’t imagine someone who finds ambiguity in the simplest statement. They can’t, in short, imagine me—a technical writer.

I don’t doubt that 95% of non-morons find Questions 1 and 2 perfectly clear. Their lucky souls would puzzle how anyone could infer two meanings from such simple questions. And I am equally mystified how they see just one. In my perfect world, everyone would be as befuddled as I.

My dad certainly was. To his dying day, he would shortcircuit each time my mother asked him to “turn up the air conditioning.” If the dial reads 70, was he supposed to turn the dial forward, to 72, or backward, to 68?

Our apparently congenital affliction has brought untold grief into my marital life, as well. “Put this bowl over there,” my first wife, Susan, would say, nodding vaguely northeast. I’d stare blankly “over there,” then ask, “Do you mean on the table, or on the counter?”

One clear, crisp autumn day, I was standing outside our apartment when Susan called down: “Is it cold outside?” I responded sensibly: “That depends. There’s a lot of radiant heat. But there’s not much convective heat.” To my astonishment, she asked again. So I clarified: “If you stand in the sun and wear a jacket, you’ll feel warm. In the shade without a jacket, you’ll feel cold.” When she asked a third time, I lost all patience. “Look,” I called tersely, “It’s about 70 degrees in the sun, 60 in the shade, and the wind is blowing at 8 miles an hour. Is it cold outside? You decide.”

The next summer, at lunch, Susan asked me to pour some juice into her tapered champagne glass. “How far?” I asked. “About halfway,” she replied. Here we go. “Halfway by volume, or halfway by height?” Before long, my dear wife had had enough. Now, I’m someone else’s headache.

You see, I’ve literally made a career of combating ambiguity. As a technical writer, I live by Francis Bacon’s creed: “Write not so that you can be understood, but so that you cannot be misunderstood.” As a technical editor, I used to pale when instructed to “just fix obvious mistakes.” Danger, Will Robinson. To a professional idiot, all ambiguity is obvious.

Yet despite what two bosses, one ex-wife, and one current wife may think, I am far from alone in my befuddlement. “You Can’t Miss It”—my thesis for a master’s degree in technical and professional communication—explored how drivers deal with confusing directions. “Go half a mile,” you’re assured, “then turn left at Center Street.” You drive half a mile and come to Center Boulevard. Do you turn? Or do you drive on, hoping that Center Street is just around the bend?

Normal people boast that they arrive at a correct understanding by quickly filtering out irrelevant interpretations. When you test them, however, the truth emerges: Other meanings just don’t occur to them. For example, I’ve always had a problem remembering which way to adjust my clock every spring and fall, because I don’t get the mnemonic “Spring forward, fall back.” This morning, should 2 A.M. have become 3 A.M. or 1 A.M.? Friends can’t imagine my confusion. “Forward means forward,” they say.

Oh? Suppose you have a 2 P.M. department meeting. That morning, the boss’s secretary calls and says, “The boss can’t make the two o’clock. He’s moved the meeting an hour forward.”

So when’s the meeting? Three o’clock? Or one o’clock? Would you bet your next promotion on it?

The once-infallible College Board has conceded that some of its questions may unwittingly allow two correct answers. After sitting for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, you can now receive the answers and challenge the Board’s “correct” answer. The kids who win these challenges are my teen idols. They make the Board bump up the SAT scores of all savants who answered, “Either B or C.” I’d go further, stripping points from every automaton who answered, “only B.”

Letterman and Leno had a field day when President Clinton told Paula Jones’s lawyers “it depends on that the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” but I understood. Look up the root of is, the verb be, and you’ll find eight meanings. If “To be, or not to be” is the question, Bill and I have 16 answers.

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, all who would cross the Bridge of Death had to answer three questions posed by its keeper. They who failed were flung into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. The bridge keeper asked King Arthur, “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” The king replied, “What do you mean? An African or European swallow?”

“What? I don’t know that!” the keeper protested. Whoosh! The keeper was flung to his death. The tables were turned.

Maybe, if the tables are turned enough times, the questions on Census 2010 will be the census for the Rest of Us. Beneath each question will appear an example—or two. On the Web, just below the link to Frequently Asked Questions, will be a link to IFQs—Infrequently Asked Questions, designed for the clueless multitude. Or, as it were, minitude.

And Tracy 2010 will be as lonely as the Maytag repairman.

In Gun Debate, Even Language Can Be Loaded

The Times documents how gun metaphors pervade our everyday language:

When the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence wanted to promote more restrictions on firearms after the Connecticut school shootings in December, it turned to a firm to help publicize its position. The firm’s name? Point Blank Public Affairs.

When Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. promised ideas for responding to the massacre, he said he was “shooting for Tuesday”—even as he warned that there is “no silver bullet” for stopping gun violence. When President Obama noted that he was reviewing those ideas, he said on a different topic that he would not negotiate “with a gun at the head.”

No wonder it is hard to get rid of gun violence when Washington cannot even get rid of gun vocabulary. The vernacular of guns suffuses the political and media conversation in ways that politicians and journalists are often not even conscious of, underscoring the historical power of guns in the American experience. Candidates “target” their opponents, lawmakers “stick to their guns,” advocacy groups “take aim” at hostile legislation and reporters write about a White House “under fire.”

Read the full article.

persuade. convince

Seth Godin plucks an intriguing distinction out of our everyday vocabulary:

To "convince" is to employ logic. To "persuade" is to employ emotion.

Engineers use syllogisms to convince people. Marketers use stories to persuade people.

The Speciousness of “Strategic”

A version of this blog post appeared on No Straw Men on April 6, 2009.

I work in the field of “strategic communications.” In my past job, I worked on “strategic partnerships,” among other things. Both terms are well-established, yet both are 50% meaningless.

After all, aren’t all communications “strategic”? Do nonstrategic partnerships even exist?

The truth is, these are differences without a distinction. As any semanticist will tell you, if you can remove the adjective without changing the meaning of the noun, chuck the adjective. It’s a buzzword, “an important-sounding, usually technical word or phrase, often of little meaning, used chiefly to impress laymen.”

Think of this speciousness the next time you’re tempted to employ such jargon.

The Art of the Pun

I changed my iPod’s name to Titanic. It’s syncing now.

When chemists die, they barium.

Jokes about German sausage are the wurst.

I know a guy who’s addicted to brake fluid. But he says he can stop any time.

How does Moses make his tea? Hebrews it.

I stayed up all night to see where the sun went. Then it dawned on me.

This girl said she recognized me from the vegetarian club, but I’d never met herbivore.

I’m reading a book about anti-gravity. I just can’t put it down.

I did a theatrical performance about puns. It was a play on words.

They told me I had type A blood, but it was a type O.

PMS jokes are not funny. Period.

Why were the Indians here first? They had reservations.

We’re going on a class trip to the Coca-Cola factory. I hope there’s no pop quiz.

I didn’t like my beard at first. Then it grew on me.

Did you hear about the cross-eyed teacher who lost her job because she couldn’t control her pupils?

When you get a bladder infection, urine trouble.

Broken pencils are pointless.

I tried to catch some fog, but I mist.

What do you call a dinosaur with an extensive vocabulary? A thesaurus.

England has no kidney bank, but it does have a Liverpool.

I used to be a banker, but then I lost interest.

I dropped out of communism class because of lousy Marx.

All the toilets in New York’s police stations have been stolen. The police have nothing to go on.

I got a job at a bakery because I kneaded dough.

Haunted French pancakes give me the crêpes.

Velcro—what a rip-off!

A cartoonist was found dead in his home. Details are sketchy.

Venison for dinner again? Oh deer!

The earthquake in Washington obviously was the government’s fault.

Be kind to your dentist. He has fillings, too.

Addendum (11/8/2012):

What's the rabbit's favorite restaurant? IHOP.

Semicolons vs. Commas

An e-mail exchange from April 2000 with the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style.

MLA 5.32 says that if coordinate clauses contain commas, semicolons may be used in lieu of customary commas for separation of the clauses. Likewise for clarity, as I was taught in high school, aren’t semicolons permissible when the clauses are simply lengthy? Such clauses do not necessarily contain commas of their own.

A: Yes. As we say in 5.93, “If the clauses of a compound sentence are very long . . . a semi-colon may be used.”

Ragged-Right Style

An e-mail exchange from April 2000 with the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style.

: MLA 6.57 (Ragged-Right Style) refers to a minimum line length, which ensures that long words will be broken, whereas short ones need not be. In computer technology I believe this is known as the “hyphenation zone,” or the distance from the end of the line within which the pro-gram divides words; changing the size of the zone affects how often words are divided.

Since MLA does not specify this length (and thus conceivably does not have a recommendation, what length does the University of Chicago Press use in its publications? (Microsoft Word has a default length of .25.)

A: MLA does not specify things like minimum line length because there is no standard line length for us to base it on. Trim size varies from book to book, as well as margin width, font size, etc., and as a result line length is different for each. These are all aesthetic judgments, as well as practical ones, and we leave them to the designer. Nonetheless, see 6.58.

Quotations in Quoting Multiple Paragraphs

An e-mail exchange from January 2004 with the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style.

Q: In quoting multiple paragraphs, I've noticed that some stylists forgo closing quotations at the end of each paragraph and instead use only opening quotations at the beginning of each para-graph. Does
MLA support this style?

A: Yes, this is the long-accepted style, and MLA accepts it.

Parenthetical Initialisms

An e-mail exchange from June 2003 with the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style.

Q: Here’s the sentence “The educators in these schools are pushing a drug called Ritalin on students they diagnose with attention deficit disorder (A.D.D.).”

Must I use the initialism as above (in parentheses immediately after the phrase) before I use the initialism later in the essay? For example, if I want later to refer to “attention deficit disorder” as A.D.D., must I previously have referred to it as A.D.D. in conjunction with spelling out “atten-tion deficit disorder”?

A: This is a judgment call. If you are confident that your audience will know what A.D.D. refers back to, then you may choose to dispense with the hoop-jumping step of presenting the parenthetical initialism at first mention of attention deficit disorder. A.D.D. certainly would be a candidate for this looser treatment. Then there are initialisms that have become words in and of themselves—like CEO—and need not be introduced in any manner.

Spelling-Out a Decimal

An e-mail exchange from February 2000 with Eric Wirth, an assistant editor at the Modern Language Association.

Q: How should I write a number that contains a decimal point? “Ten point two” or 10.2?

A: Normally you would not spell out a decimal (MLA Handbook 2.5.2). The only exception I can think of is in dialogue in a work of fiction. There is no way to say a numeral; you can only say the word for the number. Therefore, some novelists might write:

“His temperature is ninety-nine point seven,” the doctor said.

Ending a Sentence with a Quote within a Quote

An e-mail exchange from June 2000 with Eric Wirth, an assistant editor at the Modern Language Association.

Q: If a sentence ends with a quote within a quote, there will be two sets of quotations after the period. Should a space be used between the two different quotes?

A: A standard full space—the space used between words—would probably be too much in any context. These two characters should be separated by just enough space to allow the reader to distinguish them. If the typeface you’re working with places them too close together, you may choose to insert a small amount of additional space. This is really a question of proper typography, or typesetting. In ordinary typing, it is fine to type the two characters together without worrying about the space between.

How to Format a Drop Cap

An e-mail exchange from July 2000 with the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style.

Q: Does the 14th edition of MLA mention the typographical feature known as drop-cap, which magazines almost always use to begin an article or a new series of paragraphs.

Also, if the drop-cap is used on a one-letter word, should a space follow that word? If yes, the result comes across as poor, spacey typography. If not, the result appears cluttered. What does MLA recommend?

A: MLA mentions the drop initial at 18.55, although it does not address your question.

A space must follow a drop cap of one letter. Some fonts will work better than others in this situ-ation. A good designer will look at the chapter openings to determine whether a drop initial is going to work well for that particular copy and abandon the idea if the results are awkward.

Should a Lowercase Letter Follow a Colon?

An e-mail exchange from June 2000 with Eric Wirth, an assistant editor at the Modern Language Association.

Q: I was taught that a lowercase, not an uppercase, letter should follow a colon, except when the idea of the sentence after the colon is sustained by the subsequent sentence(s).

A: See Chicago 5.103 and page 57 in the MLA Handbook. They basically agree.


disintermediate (v): to eliminate the middleman or to move money from low-interest-bearing accounts to high-interest-bearing accounts

In order to disintermediate my money, I disintermediated my financial advisor.


disarticulate (v): to separate bones at the joints (literally); to break up and disrupt the logic of (figuratively)

So thoroughly did Christopher Hitchens debate that he disarticulated the arguments of his opponents.

custom. customized

Q: Isn’t “customized” just a highfalutin way to say “custom”?

A: No. There’s a place for both words, and the overlap is minimal, when they’re used correctly.

A custom device is designed or built from scratch; it needn’t have anything in common with other devices.

A customized device begins with a baseline design and makes changes here or there.

Allow For vs. Allow

We want to allow good things.
We want to allow for unwanted things.

The new gun will be idiotproof to allow safer use
The new gun will be idiotproof to allow for idiots.

Head home early to allow ample time.
Head home early to allow for traffic.

Parsing a Press Release: Adobe

Adobe announced today that they won’t be making any more versions of Flash Player for mobile devices, but as usual for large companies, you have to work hard to decipher what they’ve said.

Confusing, marketing-voiced corporate communication is a terrible problem in this industry, and it’s damaging to the companies themselves. Adobe’s press release (that’s what it essentially is, even though it’s nominally a blog post) sounds sterile, aloof, disconnected and tentative—perhaps even with a note of desperation. I decided to rewrite it.

Attention New York Times Headline Writers: Don't Sacrifice Grammar for Cuteness

A guest post from Paul Stregevsky.

As a stickler for clear antecedents, I fault this headline, from the New York Times: "Iowa, the Early Decider, Still Hasn't."

I would even fault, "Iowa, the Earliest State to Decide, Still Hasn't." Still hasn't decide? Um, no. There is but one legitimate antecedent: "decided." And since readers would find it awkward to read "Iowa, the Earliest State to Have Decided, Still Hasn't," the headline writer must abandon the conceit and try again.

Mind you, I oppose constructions like this one not because they're illogical (though they are), but because they force readers to mentally correct the grammatical error.

Addendum: Actually, this could work: "Iowa, the Early State to Decide, Still Can't."

Addendum (1/4/2012): I e-mailed this post to Philip Corbett, the Times's associate managing editor for standards who writes the After Deadline blog. He's given me permission to publish his reply:

I agree in general that headlines should be grammatical. But given the constraints of the form, I think it's reasonable on occasion to expect the reader to make a bit more of a syntactical leap than might be demanded in other contexts. (Here, I suspect the headline writer was also alluding to President Bush's famous description of himself as "the decider," another argument for allowing the construction.)

What do you think?

Parsing a Press Release: Best Buy

Take it away Larry Downes:

The company issued a statement that read: “Due to overwhelming demand of hot product offerings on during the November and December time period, we have encountered a situation that has affected redemption of some of our customers’ online orders.”

Let’s parse that sentence for a moment. The company “encountered a situation”—that is, it was a passive victim of an external problem it couldn’t control, in this case, customers daring to order products it acknowledges were “hot” buys. This happened, inconveniently for Best Buy, during “the November and December period,” that is, the only months that matter to a retailer. For obvious reasons, the statement ties itself in knots trying to avoid mentioning that the “situation” occurred during the holidays.

The situation that Best Buy “encountered” has “affected redemption” of some orders. Best Buy doesn’t fill online orders, it seems. Rather, customers “redeem” them. So it’s the customers, not Best Buy, who have the problem. And those customers haven’t been left hanging; they’ve only been “affected” in efforts to “redeem” their orders. It’s not as if the company did anything wrong, or, indeed, anything at all.

It’s all so passive. It’s also a transparent and truly feeble pack of lies. Here’s what the honest and appropriate release would have said: “Due to poor inventory management and sales forecasting of the most popular products during our key sales season, we can’t fill orders we promised to fill weeks ago in time for Christmas.”

There’s a little more to the Best Buy’s press release: “We are very sorry for the inconvenience this has caused, and we have notified the affected customers.”

Again, note the use of the passive voice—“this” refers to the “situation” that Best Buy “encountered.” The “situation,” not Best Buy’s poor operations, “has caused” inconvenience to customers. It’s not something Best Buy did wrong. It’s like they’re reporting the weather, something utterly out of their control about which the company is a mere observer. They’ve “notified the affected customers” despite, it seems, no sense of obligation to do so, let alone to find a solution to a problem entirely of the company’s own creation. How sorry are they, do you think?

Again, here’s my rewrite: “Three days before Christmas, too late for the customers to make alternative arrangements, we are just now letting our would-be customers know. We have no excuse for such amateur behavior.”

Don't Use a Noun When There's a Verb

Example #1: Putin’s last assignment for the spy agency was conducting surveillance on students at Leningrad State University. [NYT]

Revision #1: Putin’s last assignment for the spy agency was surveiling students at Leningrad State University.

Example #2: House G.O.P. Leaders Agree to Extension of Payroll Tax Cut [NYT]

Revision #2: House G.O.P. Leaders Agree to Extend Payroll Tax Cut

Addendum (1/20/2012):

Example #3: Our growth over the past five years is a testament to the continued commitment of our clients.

Revision #3: Our growth over the past five years testifies to continued commitment of our clients.

Addendum (1/28/2012):

Example #4: Our success is dependent on our people.

Revision #4: Our success depends on our people.

Addendum (7/12/2012): Laura Hale Brockway identifies 18 more "verbs that cut far from your writing":

Revision #5: The managing editor made a recommendation to use a new style guide.

Revision #5: The managing editor recommended a new style guide.

  • make a decision. decide
  • to be expanded. expand
  • formulate an argument. argue
  • raise an objection. object
  • make restitution. resolve
  • express resentment. resent
  • arrive at a conclusion. conclude
  • make a suggestion. suggest
  • perform an analysis. analyze
  • develop a plan. plan
  • exercise conformity. conform
  • undertake a development. develop
  • find a solution. solve
  • make a revision. revise
  • provide clarification. clarify
  • give encouragement. encourage
  • cause a delay. delay